The Surprising Benefits of Increased Structure for Indie Workers

This article originally appeared on SamSpurlin.com in August 2013. As I continue transitioning to my new home here at TheWorkologist.com, I'm resurfacing some older articles that you may have missed from before. Enjoy!

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Last summer I was involved in a project where we interviewed fourteen individuals working at a coworking space. These people were self-employed, telecommuters, or otherwise working independently and the coworking space was where they came to complete their work. As part of the interview, we asked them if they had worked at a more traditional job before becoming an independent worker and if so, why they had decided to change to what they were doing now. Most of them had experience working in a traditional job and nearly all of them cited some kind of complaint about the structure they had to deal with as part of that job as the reason for their switch. Arrival times, strict rules about how they completed their work, hierarchy and expectations about how long they work were all commonly mentioned. 

Next, we asked them what they found the most difficult component of working on their own and why they decided to work at a coworking space. Almost all of them then mentioned the complete lack of structure that working independently entails as being the hardest thing they had to deal with and working at a coworking space as a way to introduce more structure into their work! 

In trying different work styles over the past couple of weeks I've had my own interesting experience with structure or the lack thereof. The weeks where I introduced the most structure to my work style, namely, the weeks where I used the Pomodoro Technique, I got the most work done and felt most engaged with what I was doing. The Pomodoro Technique strictly regulates how long you work and take breaks for throughout the day. One might think that would be very tiresome for somebody who has completely free reign over how he does his work but it's actually the other way around. A lack of structure is exhausting because you're constantly facing multiple decisions beyond just the execution of the work throughout the day. 

The people in our study and my own experience corroborates what Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have discovered in their research about willpower. In a nutshell, willpower is an exhaustible resource that gets depleted throughout the day every time you have to do something that taps into it. Making decisions, whether important or inane, tap into your store of willpower. When structure is completely removed from the equation, like when somebody switches from a typical white collar job to working for themselves, suddenly many decisions that used to be on autopilot (when should I start working? what should I do first? when do I stop working?) require attention. The result is a willpower reserve that becomes depleted much more readily than it used to. A potential answer? Embrace structure of your own creation.

If you work for yourself, try sitting down and making some rules and some structure to guide how you work. Some worthwhile questions to think through include:

  • When do you start working every day?
  • When do you stop working every day?
  • How do you know when a project is finished?
  • Do you work on the weekends?
  • Do you do personal tasks during the work day? If so, all personal tasks or only specific kinds?
  • When do you check email? All day long or at set times?
  • When do you check other social media? As a break from work, all day long, or at set times?

Additionally, like the individuals we interviewed in our research, it might make sense to buy a membership to a local coworking space for at least a day or two each week to help introduce even more structure into your day.

As independent workers, or even as intelligent white-collar workers at traditional jobs, we may often bristle at the idea of structure. While structure can certainly get out of hand and become bureaucratic, try refining the way you think about it. You may benefit from more of it than you think.

Photo by *Mars